Brett Haley’s Hearts Beat Loud is a quasi-musical in the vein of Once, featuring fashionable indie songs—written by singer-songwriter Keegan Dewitt—that are integrated into the story as the musical output of a burgeoning band. Though Haley’s film, about a father-daughter relationship rather than a romantic one, is less mawkish than John Carney’s, it isn’t immune to easy sentimentality. A feel-good movie that could stand to introduce another bad feel or two, it avoids setting up any conflict between its characters that couldn’t be resolved via a three-minute indie-pop song.
Frank (Nick Offerman), the propietor of a Brooklyn record store, has lived alone with his daughter, Sam (Kiersey Clemons), ever since the sudden death of his wife a decade earlier. The film drops the viewer into their lives at a point when the father and daughter seem to be on divergent paths: Sam, a recent high school grad, is gearing up to leave for UCLA’s medical school, while Frank is coming to terms with the fact that his store is going out of business. And from its opening scenes, Hearts Beat Loud emphasizes the distance between them. As Sam, while in an elective preparatory class, eagerly engages with a lesson about heart disease, Frank sits behind the counter of his store, smoking a cigarette despite a customer’s complaints.
Back at home, Frank, a former aspiring rock musician, pulls his hard-working and somewhat recalcitrant teenaged daughter away from her studies through the dogged insistence that they jam, apparently a family tradition. In their jamming session, Sam happens across a catchy indie-pop hook on the keyboard, and, conveniently, has some lyrics handy to go along with it. The two flesh out the film’s titular song in a subsequent montage, which simplifies the songwriting process for the characters and audience alike: Frank and Sam whip up “Hearts Beat Loud” over the course of the evening, and in the morning—without notifying Sam—Frank uploads it to Spotify. After the track garners a modicum of indie notoriety, Frank begins harboring fantasies of the success that eluded him two decades before, setting up a conflict with Sam’s pre-med plans even as producing new music brings them closer together.
While those familiar with Offerman’s outdoorsy libertarian on Parks and Recreation might find the actor an odd choice to play the laidback urbanite Frank, the actor’s ability to switch rapidly and believably between stern paternalism and boyish glee makes his “cool dad” character engaging, even if Frank barely transcends cliché. Clemons’s character also narrowly skirts cliché, but by showing us pieces of Sam’s life apart from Frank, the film softens a bit the familiar trope of the man-child showing the serious woman how to really live. A subplot in which Sam falls in love with a local artist, Rose (Sasha Lane), avoids tying Sam’s development purely to Frank’s urging that she loosen up—even if, like much of the rest of the film, the romance is rather tame and straightforward. Still, Hearts Beat Loud favors Frank’s point of view: He not only has more screen time, but he’s also given more flaws—as well as a number of easy absolutions for those flaws, as when Sam quickly forgives him for uploading their song to Spotify without her permission.
If Hearts Beat Loud betrays a willingness to indulge Frank’s toxic-masculine failings—at one point, he gets a bit pushy regarding his attraction to and expectations of his landlord, Leslie (Toni Collette)—it makes Sam seem too perfect. Even while supplying Sam with additional motivation, the scenes focused on her life reveal very few knots in her character: Outside of lingering trauma from the early death of her mother, Sam is simply a well-adjusted teenager who dreads going to college because it means leaving her girlfriend behind. All too seamlessly, she sublimates this anxiety into her songs, a rather facile depiction of artistic inspiration. Sam’s unproblematic relationship to creating music mirrors the film’s approach to its central conflicts, as Frank’s problems are also resolved in an almost off-handed fashion.
The steadiness with which Haley’s film progresses through its dramatic beats is rather like its familiar-sounding indie pop, moving rhythmically toward a predictable climax whose emotional intensity feels unearned. Without ever fully embracing the structure of the musical, Hearts Beat Loud still presents an idealized reality that the viewer might associate with the genre. At one point, Frank even intones the film’s thesis: “When life hands you conundrums, you turn them into art.” If only life, or art, were so simple.